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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 65, 2017

KIM HUAT TAN, Mark: A New Covenant Commentary (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2016). Pp. 286. Paperback. US$30.00.

Kim Huat Tan introduces a helpfully compiled bibliography to his commentary with the note that “books and articles on Mark are legion” (235). Increasingly, those who would turn a hand to the writing of a biblical commentary are exercised in the justification for releasing yet another such work onto the market. Of course, a request coming from a series editor(s) can be hard to resist, but that simply provides the prompt for a serious consideration of how to make a worthwhile contribution to, in this case, Markan studies, and not plummet into a reinforcement of publishing fashions and consumerism.

Kim Huat Tan has succeeded in avoiding the latter hazard notwithstanding that the avowed intent of the series is to digest the results of laborious, lengthy and detailed research for an audience short on time and expertise. Even so, the refrain of the constraints of brevity that runs through the commentary indicates how much the author would have welcomed the opportunity to give more attention to a number of issues. This tension betrays itself on occasion where the temptation to lead the reader into more minute scholarly concerns surfaces on the page.

The commentary succeeds in delivering a new approach to the heuristic genre. Gone is the verse-by-verse exposition that earlier representatives of the genre ploddingly offered. Instead Tan works with by combining trajectories of meaning that run through passages and sections of Mark with a generous provision of “excurses” (20 in all) and homiletic stations (7 “Fusing the Horizons”). The reader is, in the former instance, exposed to more scholarly issues and, in the latter, invited into consideration of how the text might challenge and interact with present-day concerns. Occasionally the latter horizons intrude into both the excurses and the textual interpretation so that neat demarcations are not always followed nor the hermeneutical method behind connections clearly enunciated. Indeed, in one instance there is a certain irony in the interpretation of the gospels (plural) of Rome needing frequent re-enactments (15) as compared to Mark’s singular gospel combined with the call to modern evangelistic practitioners for performances that are re-enactments “following the plot but with different props” (16)—one wonders ultimately what the difference is, in that case, between Roman imperial propaganda and evangelistic endeavour. The commentary ends with a brief sketch of Mark’s Theology, accenting Christology, the Kingdom of God and Discipleship, and provides the ever-important (though all-too-often omitted) series of indices. There are some new ideas that emerge—the structure of the parables chapter, the provocative nature of entry on any animal into Jerusalem for example.

The preface that speaks almost apologetically of occasional Asian insights entering here is not substantially demonstrated in the commentary—the issues of Christianity in a multi-faith Asian environment and the question of wealth fixation in resurgent Asian economies have to be discerned as much through what is not said as much as what is stated. One might smile however at the relish with which Horsley’s critique of the USA as imperial Rome redivivus is both garnered and yet taken as an example of the need for self-criticism (16).

In many ways, the commentary reflects traditional western concerns, especially of an evangelical ilk. Even though Tan names his task as explaining “Mark’s tale, and not to assess whether it stands up to historical or synoptic scrutiny” (xi), it is precisely the default position that Mark does stand up historically that governs the interpretation of, for example, the players involved in the death of John the Baptist (78f) or the question of the timing of the Last Supper in Mark and John (212f). But such accents on “credible history” (81) are driven also by apologetic and sometimes traditional concerns. Thus new developments in the interpretation of the Syrophoenician story and its implications for a more nuanced understanding of Mark’s Christology are virtually ignored since “it is impossible to think Mark would want to make Jesus appear in a bad light” (152). The understanding of the widow’s action in the temple is not a prophetic judgement (171). Rather it is compliant service of the people of God although not the temple—a slight of hand that is not explained. Moreover Jesus appears more Johannine not only with his prescience—thus the date of Mark is given as 64–68, with a preference for 67–68CE (5, 181) which means that Chapter 13 is prophetic rather than Mark’s attempt to provide an explanation for the destruction of the temple from within the perspective of the commitments of the Jesus movement (a vaticinium ex eventu). Indeed Jesus becomes almost Mel Gibsonesque in his confident dealing with the agony of the passion (requiring that Jesus must have intended the quotation of Psalm 22:1 to point to the exultant end of the psalm). Such confidence in both Jesus and Mark means that Tan cannot countenance v. 8 as the end of Mark. Mark, he claims, is not interested in leaving things open (222) and hence must have had an ending something like Matthew’s. Fortunately he avoids the temptation to reconstruct that posited ending. Elsewhere however he cannot resist claiming that Jesus commands monogamy (135), ignoring both Davies and Allison’s observation that Mark 10 (though its Matthean derivative) is an anti-household code and the important (indeed primary) marriage implications of Jesus’ teaching in Mark 12:18–27, preferring to accent the secondary resurrection elements.

Probably the greatest tension with history is in the poverty of reference to the Roman setting for the Gospel. Tan takes the “New Covenant Commentary” as indicating a commitment to the continuum of Old Covenant and New Covenant and hence turns to Old Testament and rabbinical literature (often without acknowledging issues of dating as regards the latter) as the primary dialogue partner for Mark. This is justified primarily by the presence of Old Testament quotations—again, for Tan, a historical indicator (in particular Gentiles in Rome well-versed in the LXX) rather than a rhetorical one (such as Christopher Stanley has forcefully argued). Indeed, as a commentary that looks to the interchange between OT and NT there is considerable useful material here. There are occasional signs of indebtedness to imperial criticism, especially as regards the opening to the Gospel but the “world” vista of the gospel that is accented in the anointing woman’s story (Mark 14:9) has not reset or modified the influences with which Mark is interacting. The danger therefore is that literary intertextuality slides into “historical credibility” (especially with the underplaying of the oral dimensions of Mark), with responsibility for Jesus’ death being laid primarily at the feet of Jewish authorities and the critique of Roman power remaining muted.

There will be many pastors and interested lay people who will find this new style of commentary helpful, especially given its highly readable flow. Here will be found considerable reinforcement of traditional interpretations, albeit with some new demonstration and, sometimes, engagement with alternate viewpoints. The substantial quarantining of dialogue to the Old Testament will help to preserve biblical continuity, albeit transformed through Christ’s teaching; this may be seen as coming at the expense of overt engagement with the primary reality of the lives of Mark’s hearers, that is, Rome. For those with interest in the clash with empire or indeed with the oral aspects of performing the gospel in that environment, there will be less return here.

Review by
Charles Sturt University